Book smart


When it comes to home improvements, I’m not what you’d call a do-it-yourselfer. Conditioned since early in childhood to “just stay out of the way so you don’t screw this up worse,” the only thing I tend to do completely by myself is bathroom chores. I am definitely a “build it for me, let me try to use it for a while, and then I’ll make silly suggestions on how to improve it next time” type of girl. About the only thing I have ever tried to build solo is my self-esteem. Way back before Barnes and Noble devoted a whole section to self-help books and I had to search around the shelves in the back corner, past all the alternative lifestyle manuals I didn’t want to crack open, I’ve been a self-help journeyman. Rowing my own boat, discovering what color my parachute is, chasing after my cheese, and manifesting my own destiny, I’ve studied it all. But books that teach you how to make something concrete, something three-dimensional and real enough so that, if you’ve pictured it this morning you can be using it this afternoon, I never cracked a one. They were always on the other side of the bookstore, away from me, along with the readers who had already manifested their destinies and were celebrating by building themselves a patio.

I should point out here that, as a technical writer, I can write those kinds of books. I can interview computer hardware engineers, refer to their schematics, figure out how they expect Joe IT manager to install networking component A into device A without electrocuting himself, and write the book about it that gets shrink wrapped and shipped with each sale. I have published volumes of guides for propeller-headed audiences,  filled with words like flange, rack-mount, configure and counter-clockwise, and illuminated by little number-and-arrow-annotated diagrams. I once even devised a whole table to describe recommended torque values for G3G134-P installation! 

I can successfully tell someone else how to assemble something because, typically, I’ve had long, drawn-out pre-deadline test phases when engineers would follow my words like gospel, give me endless prototypes to monkey with and, ultimately, would take ownership of my instructions if none of us electrocuted ourselves by following them. I can do this sort of work for pay because I’ve had middlemen. And by far the most valuable of those middlemen was a genius graphic artist named Bob. You see, while I was referring to engineering schematics, Bob was actually understanding them and transforming them into drawings that illustrated component A sliding into device A. He would take the G3G134-P from a flat, one-dimensional CAD print out and actually show its tiny assembly screws and its rack-mount adapters and all of its networking interfaces in drawings that would make its black, boxlike features practically leap off the page in high-def. Once I could study Bob’s drawings, I could wrap my text around them, layer on the little numbers and arrows, and I’d have some step-by-steps even I could follow. And if the steps were really complex, Bob and I and our engineering team were bolstered by the caveat that empowers all cutting-edge technology to make it out of the development lab and into the hands of users: Depending on your operating environment and your specific device configuration, your results may vary from those depicted in these instructions.

So how did it ever come to pass that I could articulate remodeling instructions for my home renovation? How did I take a firm stance at the conception end of such a major redesign process and still want to be the end-user of the product? And how in the world did I do this in partnership with practical, level-headed Tom, who is so handy that he once fixed a toilet with nothing but a plastic fork, some string, and his own ingenuity? He bought me a book.

From the down to earth part of the bookstore I had previously only imagined, Tom purchased The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live by Sarah Susanka. At first wary of the “blueprint” part of its title, I soon discovered this handy book had pictures. It showed actual before and after illustrations of homes like ours that needed to do a lot with not much space. It had tips and tricks and conversion charts, gathered from families that, I felt fairly certain, were living happily ever after with their own handiwork. When I figured out I could refer to various parts of this book as my prototypes for a kitchen layout, for how to translate my desire for “casual, open living spaces” into real nuts and bolts lingo, it became my bible.

“I want the new kitchen cabinets to be this color, but this style,” I’d proclaim to Tom, flipping through the book and pointing. “And I want that place where we said we could hang my special blue plates to be something like this, but without that wall in the way.” Soon the The Not So Big House book was dog eared and crammed with sticky notes bearing numbers and arrows that eventually corresponded to a building plan and workable instructions. I never had to say “flange” or talk about torque, but I began to feel like a real engineer. If I couldn’t articulate what I did want, I could refer to what I didn’t want and work from there.

My initial reference manual soon became part of a mini library of do-it-yourself remodeling books. I even graduated from Barnes and Noble and Amazon to hardcore purchases straight from Home Depot, right on the shelves by the duct tape. What drawers fit my lifestyle, how light fixtures could add the perfect accent, and how to store pots and pans without needing a head lamp to find them — I had a book about it.

They’re in storage now, gathering dust on our do-it-ourselves book shelves. I sure was glad to have them, knowing there could be no prototype phases and my results couldn’t vary if I wanted to live with and in them with my specified husband. I got book smart, got my head out of the clouds (where I was drifting, attached to my imaginary self-discovery parachute) and helped execute the biggest project of my life. Not only is the end result exceeding my requirements while conforming to the strictest of all regs – those mandated by the Maine Land Use Regulatory Commission – it is the perfect operating environment for rowing my own boat.

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